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“What You Have Heard Is True”—Carolyn Forché unveils a brutal truth

December 5, 2021

In terms of structure, content, lyricism, and ultimate power to open a reader’s eyes to the world as it is, I think this book has no equal. The best prose has a lot of poetry in it, and “What You Have Heard Is True” is both lyrical and powerful in unexpected ways.  Although Carolyn Forché ‘s experiences at the start of the long El Salvador civil war (1979-1992) took place decades ago, we can be assured that similar human rights abuses are still going on in nations throughout the world.

This book is not a history of that war, nor is it a “political” work with a specific agenda.  Rather it is a clear-eyed view of the worst things that people do against each other, under the blinding influences of greed and power.  Her book “The Country Between Us,” written during that era, exposes those influences in that moment. The current book, a memoir of sorts, takes you back to that time, reliving it minute by minute, very slowly opening the reader’s eyes as her own eyes are opening as well, learning to see.  The man who led her through all this, Leonel Gomez Vides, taught her to see, and left up to her how best to express what it was she saw.  “’Are you going to write poetry about yourself for the rest of your life?’” he asks her at the beginning of the book, before she even knows him, before she goes to El Salvador.  “’Try to see,’ Leonel had said.  It was what he was asking me to do.  Try to see.  Look at the world, he’d say, not at the mirror.”

We share her experiences in that impoverished country, wondering (like she does) where exactly is he taking her, all this coming and going throughout the countryside.  Who are all these people she meets—colonels and campesinos—in all these barrios and villages and camps and colonias?  Why is she even there?  Leonel is not really forthcoming; he wants her to learn to see, to think for herself.  We—and she—don’t really know for sure, until the middle of the book.  She had been covertly been taken into a prison to witness the solitary confinement there, and after that a clandestine and forbidden meeting with a group of Salvadoran poets, it all comes into focus.  “That night I knew that something had changed for me. . . . I never saw the young poets again.  I don’t know what happened to them, if they survived or are among the dead. . .  But the woman who went into the prison in Ahuachapán left herself behind in a barrio called La Fosa, the grave.”

This is a book that for me takes a long time to read, and not without a pencil nearby to mark out the lines that mean the most, on the many dogeared pages. 

And having read thus far, I am compelled to ask myself “What is my role in all this?”  Did I have one in 1979?  Do I have one today?  Can I leave it to my government to stand guard against human rights abuses in other nations around the world? 

Probably not.  As Leonel reminds Forché, “I have seldom seen the Americans serious about human rights unless it is politically convenient for them.”

A Gift I Seem to Have Given Myself

October 25, 2021

When I entered college in 1968 I chose for a major (of course) “English” imagining that one day I might write the Great American Novel (that day has yet to come.)  But I did invest my intellectual energy into the field, and bought a few hardcover books (text and otherwise) which were of such importance to me then, that I thought I should hang onto them.

Which brings me to tonight, when musing about the bookshelves that are the primary décor of Sky Ranch, I came upon my ancient Modern Library (the small 4-1/2”x7-1/2” edition) of “The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Donne.”

And tonight I find myself laughing out loud at some of the wittier lines from his Songs and Sonnets, and heavily reflecting on some of the pithier ones from his Sermons.

That is the idea of literature.  That the words first written four hundred years ago and preserved for one person’s attention fifty years ago continue to stimulate the response for which they were first intended.

P.S.  The Donne collection is in practically mint condition, having remained unread all these years.

“The Somers Affair,” a playwright’s thoughts on the opening scene.

October 9, 2021

An unusual confluence of unrelated circumstances recently recalled to my attention a full-length play I wrote in 2014, and had set aside for a time.  Seven years, as it turned out.  But having returned to it, I prepared the script for a reading at a zoom “Scene Night” where members of our local playwrights’ center share individual scenes—cold-read by actors—for comment.

Great way to find some of the scene’s shortcomings on your own, and find others targeted by your peers.  And to make you think about how the whole arrangement works through the spoken words of your characters, and how the writer’s job is to write—not direct, regardless of the temptation to do so through stage direction.  Some of the reaction—wishing a character had spoken or reacted differently in the script—would have been justified, except:  since we only do one scene, only I knew that the apparently inappropriate reaction in the first, is a setting up for a resolution in the next.  But only I could know that.

Which brings me to some wisdom from the Scottish actor Brian Cox—here quoted in NYT Magazine 19.3.21:

“Well, what I love,” he said, “is a director who understands text.  Because without the writing, you’re nothing. . . . The thing that compels people to say:  ‘Who is this guy [the character]?  What is he doing?’—you must always keep to that.  You must keep that sense of what is excluded from the audience. . . .”

Wisdom from Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” 1392

September 30, 2021

From the Reeve’s Tale:

“I have herd seyd, ‘man sal taa of twa thynges,

Slyk as he fyndes, or taa slyk as he brynges.’”

. . . . that is to say. . . .

“I have heard it said, ‘a man must choose one of two things,

That which he finds, and that which he brings.’”

Think about it. . . .

[Read the whole tale in the original Middle English, lines 3921-4328 in “The Canterbury Tales”]

Twelfth Night in the afternoon, at last

August 21, 2021

How absolutely refreshing to be able to sit before a live theatrical ensemble once again, and take in all the action and color and nuance and spoken word in all its remarkable glory.  And how even more refreshing when the play is Shakespeare’s intricate Twelfth Night, and the ensemble is Mill Valley’s talented Curtain Theatre.

The show—another of the Bard’s cross-dressing, mistaken-identity plays, this one directed by Michele Delattre—is full of delicious performances, clever machinations, and wonderfully-conceived choreography—not to mention the live-performance original-music soundtrack you won’t hear anywhere else.

You already may know the plot—how a twin brother and sister, separated in a shipwreck, learn to use their wiles, especially the sister Viola (Isabelle Grimm) to seek their best advantage in the country where they have come ashore.  There are laughs aplenty brought forth by the wildly funny antics of Feste the fool (Heather Cherry), Sir Toby Belch (Glenn Havlan), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Steve Beecroft—who also produced and choreographed the setpieces), and Malvolio (Grey Wolf).  Not to mention the sweetly comedic and hopelessly lovesick Countess Olivia (Faryn Thomure in her first Curtain appearance), whose captivating fan-dance was one of the most memorable high-points of a show that has far too many such high-points to call out them all.

Kudos also to the set designer for making the most of the spare outdoor stage and costume design for the intermingling of semi-modern and traditional old English apparel for laughs as well as poignant confusion in the conflicted character of Viola/Cesario.

You’ll have to go see for yourself.  You still have a few more weekends to take in this pleasure, and there’s plenty of room for social distancing in the Old Mill Park Amphitheatre in the shade of the redwoods. Bring a sweater, it may get cool—and some cash.   While these performances are free, donations are always welcome.


Saturdays, Sundays and Labor Day Monday, August 14 to September 6, 2021
All shows at 2:00 PM
Old Mill Park Amphitheatre | Mill Valley, CA

The secret to great prose

May 5, 2021

“Great storytellers make readers co-authors, letting them complete with their imaginations what has been left unsaid on the printed page.”

–Bernard F. Dick, NYT Book Review (letter) 5.2.21

This may be the secret we have all been looking for. Occasionally in Hemingway you can find this idea at work, but you have to keep looking.

Confluence

October 4, 2020

Is it too much to say that all things are linked, all experiences somehow tied together?   That events and circumstances seemingly unconnected are in fact inextricably linked, that there is no such thing as unintended coincidence?

Sunsets happen every single day, in every single place on the planet.  Only some are visible.  Some horizons are hidden behind mountains and city skylines, some beyond low-lying layers of cloud or the rim of the earth in the polar distance.  There is never a day or a place that they don’t happen, only days and places where we cannot see them.

The shores of western seas are the best places to observe the splitting of the sun into diminishing halves as it slowly sinks into the water, or more technically beneath the level horizon.  The astronomy of the situation determines that the visible sun sets at a farthest north on the 21st day of December every year, dividing the shortest day from the longest night.  And likewise, the summer solstice, that farthest-south track of the setting sun, divides the longest day from the shortest night.

And twice each year, that same track passes the place where the lengths of day and night are equal, the equinoxes, vernal and autumnal.  These are days of some significance, always.  Some ancient civilizations marked these equinoxes with stone monuments set to align that exact line of shadow, from horizon to near stone to far stone.  One has to be present, beside these lines of stone, along this line of light, on these particular days, at that moment when the sun makes that final setting.

Otherwise, these are just stones in a line, a line with no obvious significance.

At Point Arena lighthouse on the coast of California, a stone wall has been built, vertical slabs of stone set parallel to each other, in a line.  A fence—not quite a wall.  Its construction fulfills an apparent need to mark a property line running due east and west, a boundary to a park, an implacable barrier to vehicular traffic.  That much is obvious.

The wall has a Celtic beauty all its own, worthy of closer investigation into the details of its construction.  Flat labs of stone perhaps 4” thick, quarried not far away, resemble the native rock just at the waterline at the foot of the bluff below, sometimes covered by the tide and surging waves, and sometimes revealed.  They stand on end like huge slices of brown bread in a row, at varying 4’ heights with 4” stone spacers between them.  Viewed from either side, the wall has the airy lightness of a California grapestake fence.  At intervals, a placement of much more substantial stones will supply the structural stability that thin slabs alone will not maintain over eons. 

Their deeper significance can only be seen in that rare confluence of the equinox come only twice in a year, and a horizon come clear enough to divide the setting sun into its equal halves, and a curious mind directs the eye to look down that line at sunset, to observe at that very moment the astronomical calendar in all its primitive, elemental glory.

Viewed from the wall’s eastern end, sighting along the pointed tops of the slabs, it becomes clear they are erected in a dead-straight line pointing out to the sea, toward a horizon only intermittently visible in the alternating fogs of this cold and wind-driven coastline.

Equinox, Pt. Arena 9.21.20

“It is union that we want”–President William Henry Harrison

September 18, 2020

“It is union that we want”—selected quotations from the 1841 inaugural address of our ninth president William Henry Harrison—best known for being the longest such address. It should be better remembered for some of the powerful statements within it, ideas and concepts which the current party occupying the White House seems unable to recognize or fulfill.

“The freedom of the press is the great bulwark of civil and religious liberty, one of the most precious legacies,” said Mr. Harrison.

“It should be our constant and earnest endeavor mutually to cultivate a spirt of concord and harmony among the various parts of our government.”

“It is union that we want, not of a party for the sake of that party, but a union of the whole country for the sake of the whole country, for the defense of its interests against foreign aggression, for the defense of those principles for which our ancestors so gloriously contended.”

Compare these ideas to the words of our forty-fifth president: “I am the only one!”

Thomas Jefferson on Freedom of the Press

August 29, 2020

To quote Thomas Jefferson:

“I am for freedom of religion, and against all maneuvers to bring about a legal ascendancy of one sect over another: for freedom of the press, and against all violations of the Constitution to silence by force and not by reason the complaints or criticisms, just or unjust, of our citizens against the conduct of their agents.”

Compare these words to those of a later president, two centuries on, who disparages the free press as “fake news” and “truly the ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE!”* and panders to evangelical Christians in hopes of securing a few more votes.

Would that we had something at least coming close to that wisdom coming from the White House today.

*Donald J. Trump, April 5, 2019 tweet

“Dark Money”–Jane Mayer’s revealing look at the Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right

July 24, 2020

As we look around us today, we are confronted with some of the great mysteries of the world, and are consumed with questions about why things are the way they are. Jane Mayer’s expose first published in 2016 is no less powerful today in 2020 as the sharply divided United States faces an election that will determine the future of freedom and equality in our country.

Why, we ask . . .
• Why was a climate change denier put in charge of the EPA?
• How can someone with absolutely no experience in the field be appointed to head the Department of Education?
• Why is it so important for the richest 1% to increase their wealth at the expense of those at the middle and the bottom of society?
• How is it that such a vacuum of leadership exists at the highest levels of the Trump administration, that is utterly unable to cope with unfolding crises arising from the COVID-19 pandemic and the sudden push for racial and economic equity.

The answers can be found in a book, and it is not the Bible. Jane Mayer’s Dark Money reveals how the vast torrents of campaign money unleashed by the Citizens United decision have undermined the democratic standards that once held sway in the US.

Dark Money is a nightmarish tale of greed and intrigue, guaranteed to keep you up at night.

And it’s all true. . . . .

This is a book to be read slowly and shared with others. Knowledge is power.